South Coast: A Yogi’s Guide

Jessica Humphries returns to the home of her university and discovers a thriving yoga community, unique nature immersions and devoted spiritual connections.

south coast yoga

South Coast Yoga

My love affair with south coast yoga began in 2004 when I was a student at the University of Wollongong. I enthusiastically entered the yoga room for a “stretch” after my gym workout and I remember the teacher joking, as I trembled in my Downward Dog, “They’re only arms.” So it seemed apt to be venturing back to the Illawarra to explore the region’s yogic delights almost 13 years later as a much more experienced yogini. Back then, I didn’t know of any yoga studios in the area, so I was excited to explore this growing yoga hub through my new yogi lens. As I drove through Wollongong, I was flooded with memories of those younger days: dancing the nights away at local clubs, afternoon beers at the pub and long wanders along the beautiful beaches. Wollongong is a bustling little city with plenty to see and do, but in true yogic style I opted to stay in nearby Austinmer – a short drive away from the action but a lot quieter and immersed in beautiful surrounds which include picturesque beaches and rainforests.

Cultivating connections in unexpected pockets of paradise

To this day my first teacher, Leonard, remains a huge inspiration to me, and I was delighted when I contacted the University of Wollongong gym, URAC, and discovered that he is still teaching there. So much of my learning began in that room, including the curious yearning to become a teacher myself. Leonard is a unique character who teaches Iyengar in the most authentic way, and has introduced me to some fantastic contemporary folk music over the years.

My first official stop was Ray of Light Yoga, and owner Rachel Nokes is just that. This truly inspirational teacher ensures the traditions of yoga aren’t lost in her classes, and she has a maternal energy that allows students to fully let go and breathe. Rachel has a beautiful rainforest space in Bulli, where she also lives, as well as a newly opened space above an abundant health food shop, Manic Organic, in Woonona. The Woonona shala is light and filled with devoted students who come back for the holistic approach to teaching (harmonium and all) and inspiring knowledge. But you can’t beat the Bulli rainforest retreat, an invitingly comforting space that feels like home in the most beautiful way, and includes a stunning rainforest backdrop. After class I met with Rachel for a cacao beetroot latte at nearby Thirroul’s café Bread, Espresso &, where we chatted the afternoon away and I developed an incredible admiration for this approachable and genuine woman who truly lives her yoga. The café quickly became my favourite daily spot for its quirky, healthy lattes and scrumptious bliss balls.

Roadtripping south

A midweek adventure was calling, so I ventured 45 minutes south to Jamberoo, stopping at some serene spaces on the way. Just south of Wollongong in Port Kembla is the friendly, beautiful, newly opened studio, Yoga Vidya Wollongong. Nan Tien Temple in Berkeley is the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere; it is surrounded by green gardens and is a perfect stop to soak up some tranquillity and knowledge – they also offer regular classes, retreats and everything in between (including Buddhist wedding ceremonies).

Emergence Kiama is a bright and simple space with great teachers, friendly owners and a thriving community of yogis from all walks of life. Neptune Café around the corner is the go-to for brewed chai, healthy (and not so healthy) treats, adorable antique interiors and a seaside breeze.

Midweek magic

Driving into Ben Ricketts Environmental Preserve felt like a world away from my usual luxury yoga resort experience, but I easily melted into the incredibly cosy, peaceful space. Sheep grazed on the grass and the air was crisp and fresh, a welcome change from the humidity I was more accustomed to in the Northern Rivers. There was an open fire and plenty of space for the whole family in the comfortable cabin. There were three cabins and a caretaker house on the property, as well as a humble common room ideal for yoga or group events.

Ben Ricketts is a truly unique place that is owned by individuals and families who ensure that the natural and built property is preserved – a nature lovers’ dream come true. The owners are dedicated to conserving the unique plant and animal biodiversity while providing affordable, friendly accommodation. Through regular working bees, bushcare contractors and volunteers, progress is being made towards eliminating invasive weeds, regenerating the native rainforest and increasing the wildlife populations.

I awoke daily to the sound of birds chirping, and the old Aussie charm and bush surrounds left me feeling reluctant to farewell my comfortable new home. I didn’t go without first exploring a nearby bush walk around the flat Barren Grounds where I discovered an isolated water hole perfect for a skinny dip. There were plenty of other natural delights and walks to explore, and I dreamily fantasised about what life would look like as a caretaker of this peaceful property.

After immersing myself in nature, I was ready to head back to Wollongong and check out more of the yoga scene, but for travellers heading further south, I heard on the grapevine that The Berry Yoga Shala is delightful.

Wollongong wanders

Back in Wollongong, I headed to Younga Yoga, the city’s first dedicated yoga space, right in the heart of the CBD. The studio ironically opened in 2006, my last year of living in Wollongong. I was warmly greeted by owners Russ and Deb, who aren’t your typical spiritual types – Russ has a keen background in biomechanics and functional anatomy, and is a teacher for the graduate school of medicine at the local university, and Deb has a degree in physical and health education. Walking into the space, I felt like I was wandering into the lounge room of a terrace house as I admired the beautiful dark floorboards and community ambiance. The classes were challenging, but accessible and inclusive, and Russ’s knowledge brightly shone through in his teaching.

True to the warmth of the Wollongong community, I felt welcome as I wandered into Vinyasa Yoga Fairy Meadow, a stop on the highway that feels miles away from the concrete jungle. The holistic classes are taught by experienced teachers who have been greatly influenced by the likes of Clive Sheridan and Simon Borg-Olivier.

It was impossible to squeeze everything into my one-week trip, but I did consult my local yogi friends, who recommended Wollongong Yoga Centre, formerly a Bikram Yoga space and also the largest Bikram studio in Australia, that now offers Yin, Vinyasa, Yoga Synergy and more in a mostly heated space. For Kundalini yogis, there’s Radiant Soul Yoga Studio in Thirroul where classes are held in a funky, timber space. Recommended yogic eats included All Good Things, Lettuce Be Frank and Quay Canteen. There’s also a plethora of teachers working from beautiful home spaces and local community halls. A look at any of the local health food stores’ notice boards will point curious students in the right direction.

After a delightfully exhausting week, it became apparent that I’d really only sampled a taste of the smorgasbord of yoga in the Illawarra. I couldn’t have imagined what a yoga mecca this humble university city would grow into in my absence, and after finding myself in a delicious flow of lattes and asana, I nostalgically began to plan my next visit, and I left with a heavy heart full of love.